China appears right on course to join the United States and the former USSR in sharing the distinction of visiting the Moon – at least technologically. China announced Monday, Dec. 2, the successful launch of its first “soft moon landing” vehicle. According to BeijingAerospaceControlCenter, the Chang’e-3 launched from the XichangSatelliteLaunch Center had completed its initial orbital trimming, and was on course to enter lunar orbit on Friday, Dec. 6.
Emily Lakdawalla reported Dec. 2 in planetary.org the Chang’e 3 project executed a smooth launch, and already had made one course correction on Monday, indicating the voyage is proceeding on schedule. Lakdawalla described the launch as apparently flawless:
“The Long March rocket practically leapt off the pad, a thrilling event to watch from a camera mounted to the tower, showing the flaming rocket rising past. The great camera work continued with a view from the second stage that showed the separation of the four strap-on rockets and then the first stage. Another camera watched as the third stage fired, then shut down for a brief coast before firing again to place Chang’e 3 on a direct lunar transfer trajectory.”
Beijing’s lunar exploration plans include using the Chang’e-3 Moon rover “Yutu”, or Jade Rabbit, expected to land on the moon on Dec. 14. Chang’e 3 will be the first lunar touchdown since the former USSR conducted its Luna 24 mission in 1976, more than 37 years ago. Yutu will conduct surveys of the moon’s geology and composition with an emphasis on substance on the moon’s surface in the Sinus Iridum (“Bay of Rainbows”) plain consisting largely of basaltic lava rock.
China’s Chang’e-2 and Chang’e-3 second stage programs focused on unmanned landing achievement. Following successful completion of this stage China plans to bring a sample of moon rock back to Earth in the third stage of its lunar exploration, scheduled for 2017.